Alice in La-La Land

One of the measures of a great band is how good their bad albums are. Bad records by great artists fascinate me. I believe that you can never really understand an artist or his works unless you can understand their failures. Diver Down, Point of Entry, Technical Ecstasy, Presence, Stormbringer… Sure, we still love these records dearly, but aren’t they failures? And don’t we somehow love them even more because of it? The weaker records in a band’s canon can sometimes be their most interesting works. I listen to these records with an intense curiosity: What happened here? Why were these choices made? What’s the back story? Where does this fit into the big picture?

I’ve just spent some time with the albums released during what Alice Cooper refers to as his ‘blackout period’: ‘Special Forces’, ‘Zipper Catches Skin’, and ‘DaDa’. These 3 records are universally dismissed as terrible by all but the most hardcore Alice fans, were commercial disasters, and are completely ignored by Alice himself. A casual listen reveals why. But I don’t do the ‘casual listen’; I’ve dug deep into this much maligned music so you don’t have to, and I’m now ready to share my findings. Submitted for your approval: Alice Cooper’s Twilight Zone.

Our journey should probably begin with Alice Cooper’s 1980 effort ‘Flush the Fashion’. A little background: After a well-received concept album about his time in alcohol rehab and newfound sobriety (‘From the Inside’), Alice crashed and burned yet again, this time with a serious cocaine addiction. As the coke-addled Cooper entered the 80s, he threw away his 70s persona, ended his association with producer Bob Ezrin, and re-worked his sound (and look) completely. Many 70s icons adapted their styles as they entered the 80’s, but Alice’s update was so drastic that many fans walked away.

alice_cooper_flush

Nonetheless, 1980’s ‘Flush the Fashion’ became Alice’s highest-charting album in several years (#44), and set Coop on a course he would follow through his next few records. Alice’s new musical landscape featured short, punchy tunes, minimalist guitars, new wave synths, and whacked-out subject matter. Producer Roy Thomas Baker (The Cars, Queen) buffed it all to a hi-gloss finish, placing the record squarely in the early 80s. If you accept all the brave new sounds, Side One starts off strong. A cover of The Music Machine’s 1966 hit ‘Talk Talk’ segues into the album’s Top 40 single ‘Clones (We’re All)’. This, in turn, segues into one of Alice’s strongest songs in years, ‘Pain’. ‘Clones’ works; it’s catchy, melodic, and weird enough work within Alice’s established oeuvre. ‘Pain’ would have fit in on any of Alice’s previous albums, and can arguably be called Alice’s last great song. After these two tunes, however, the record is over. FtF continues with some slick/funny/upbeat material that, unfortunately, fails to make any impact, and the whole shebang winds up in less than half an hour.

So Alice Cooper’s transformation from hard rock horror movie menace to new wave sci-fi pirate was at least a moderate success. But his next move, 1981’s ‘Special Forces,’ has got to be Alice Cooper’s artistic rock bottom. Its 34 minute running time is packed with filler. ‘Who Do You Think We Are’ begins the record with a punkish snarl, but the strongest track here is another 60s cover, this time of Love’s ‘Seven and Seven Is’. A completely useless (not to mention fake) ‘live’ version of ‘Generation Landslide’ closes out Side One. ‘Skeletons in the Closet’ wouldn’t be out of place on a kids Halloween party CD, it’s just plain awful. Once again Alice is only able to cough up two decent songs; the rest of the record is throwaway junk. I know there are fans of this album, as maybe this or FtF served as their entry point into the music of Alice Cooper, but I’m so sorry; this record is Bad.

cooper-alice-special-forces

Alice claims he has no recollection of recording or touring SF, as he was freebasing cocaine at the time. He also made two TV appearances in support of Special Forces. The first was on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder; the second, on a French TV special. This video is difficult to watch, as Alice looks seriously ill, emaciated and frail. The infamous shock rocker’s newly adopted look is truly disturbing, not because of the makeup or the outfit but because we are witnessing a man in the process of destroying himself on stage. We watched Alice wasting away, after several well-publicized rehab attempts, knowing he was likely killing himself, and we expected a good record?

For Alice’s second ‘blackout’ record, ‘Zipper Catches Skin’, the Coop invited several friends to bolster the sessions. Dick Wagner, a cornerstone of Alice’s 70s successes, was brought in to co-write songs and play guitar. John Nitzinger (ex-Bloodrock lyricist) stayed on after the ‘Special Forces’ tour to co-write and also add guitar. Patty Donahue of The Waitresses (remember ‘I Know What Boys Like’, or the inescapable ‘Christmas Wrapping’?) added vocals to ‘I Like Girls’. Jan Uvena and Mike Pinera of late-period Iron Butterfly (Uvena later played drums for 80’s metallers Alcatrazz) added drums and guitar, respectively. Cooper also recorded a song written by Lalo Schiffrin, a multiple Grammy winner and composer of countless notable movie scores; Alice’s recording of Schiffrin’s ‘I am the Future’ was featured in the 1982 film ‘Class of 1984’ and was Zipper’s first single. But with all the bells and whistles, did the record work?

alice-cooper-zipper-catches-skin

The lyrics did. Bob Dylan himself once said “I think Alice Cooper is an overlooked songwriter” in Rolling Stone magazine (specifically mentioning ‘Generation Landslide’), and even after years of hard drinking and drugging, the lyrics on ZCS shine. ‘Zorro’s Ascent’ references the original Johnston McCulley books rather than their Hollywood adaptations, while ‘Adaptable (Anything for You)’ is outright hilarious. Sometimes the overt silliness of the lyrics moves the songs into Weird Al Yankovic/Dr. Demento territory (“I’m Alive (That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life)” is about exactly what it says…), but the mean-spirited misogyny woven throughout the ‘I Like Girls/Remarkably Insincere’ pairing or the punk sarcasm at the core of ‘I Better be Good’ saves the material from sliding into outright comedy.

Guitarist Dick Wagner said ‘Zipper Catches Skin’ “…was a drug induced nightmare in itself. I wont go into details… It’s all too painful to re-tell. I wrote a lot of the songs with Cooper and played some guitar but I left before the album was finished and felt glad to go home.” Somehow, though, a decent-enough record emerged from the dysfunction. The extra guitars bring it, in fact the entire ‘band’ rocks, and with the exception of the soundtrack tune, the songs are solid from beginning to end. Okay, maybe ‘No Baloney Homo Sapiens’ is a missed opportunity, and the neat and tidy production mutes the hard edges a bit, but ‘Zipper’ is worth a visit if you passed on it in 1982. Most did; virtually no one heard this record, as the world had finally turned away from the car-wreck after ‘Special Forces’ and left Alice behind.

After Zipper failed to intrude upon the charts (even after airing a TV spot in some territories to promote it; check it out on Youtube), Warners requested one final record from Alice to close out his contract. Wagner and Ezrin felt it may be their last opportunity to work with Alice, but found Cooper at death’s door, holed up in his Arizona home and unwilling to even consider working on a record. Wagner eventually persuaded Alice to start writing with him, and the result is a revelation.

AliceCooper-Dada-500x500

‘DaDa’ (1983) is an amazing little record. An exploration of the self set to electronic instruments; equal parts Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and Gary Numan’s ‘The Pleasure Principle’. Here we follow one of Alice’s recurring characters (‘Sonny’, or Alice himself) into a maze of introspection and confession. Welcome to his nightmare: I’m no psychotherapist but it’s pretty clear to me that Alice’s demons derived from a severely dysfunctional family history. Just sayin’. Both ‘Dyslexia’ and ‘I Love America’ are a riot, and Alice reveals his tragic physical and mental state in album closer ‘Pass the Gun Around’, a chilling and utterly heartbreaking song about reaching the end of the line. Add the usual artful treatment from Ezrin, and, if you can deal with the layers of orchestrated synths, the result is a minor masterpiece. The fact that this ruined man, so destroyed by drugs and drink, was able to conjure up this set of songs is nothing short of phenomenal.

So there you have it: the sum total of everything Alice Cooper doesn’t remember between 1981 and 1984. According to a 2009 interview, Cooper does, however, remember touring for ZCS and DaDa, which never happened. Neither album made the Billboard Top 200; neither album received any support from Warner Bros. There were no tours in support of these two records. When you remember two tours that didn’t happen, it’s safe to say you were pretty fucked up. After ‘DaDa’ was released, Alice was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver and the debilitating effects of chronic crack smoking. Warner Brothers officially severed relations with Alice in February of 1984. The ‘New Wave Alice’ was a commercial failure. But was it an artistic failure as well?

‘Special Forces’ notwithstanding, the relative merit of these records is hard to gauge. They are very much of their time, ‘the early 80s’, and must be considered in this context. Comparing them to what came before or after is difficult, as Alice was a genre-hopper; hard rock in the 70’s and glam rock/hair metal in the late 80s and into the 90s. Perhaps the value of these records and their place within Alice’s larger body of work is best understood when they are compared to his Straight Records material: the ‘Pretties for You’ and ‘Easy Action’ albums. I’ll get back to you on that; I’ve found both of those records to be a tough listen, but dammit, somebody’s gotta do it…

 

Number One with a Bullet(belt)

If you’re my age, you discovered music on the radio. And, like me, you were probably listening on an AM Top 40 station; in the 1970s, Top 40 radio was almost exclusively found on the AM band. A glance back at the charts from that era reveals a pretty bizarre musical landscape; country music rubbing shoulders with soul and disco, hard funk fraternizing with soft rock, weepy ballads mixing with crunchy hard rock. A little bit of everything could be found on Top 40 radio in the 1970s… And if you were willing, as I was, to listen to 30 minutes of schlock in search of one hard rocking gem, the payoff was worth it.

Placement in the Billboard Top 40 in the 1970s was based on a combination of airplay and sales. Sales were largely driven by airplay; airplay was dictated by what appeared on the charts. Record company manipulation was also a major factor. But however dysfunctional these formulae were, this was the system many of us grew up with, and the way most of us found our music in the 1970s. This was how it was for me, and this is what I found…

blue-cheer-summertime-blues-philips-6

If we limit our look back to only the hardest and heaviest tunes ever to rough up the Top 40, there’s still a surprising number that make the cut. Let’s start with The Birth of Heavy, and Blue Cheer’s epic meltdown ‘Summertime Blues’, which peaked at #14 in 1968. This has got to be the heaviest song ever to feature in the Top 20. Also in ’68, Cream made the Top 10 with ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (#6), Iron Butterfly hit #30 with ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’, and Mountain climbed to #21 in 1970 with ‘Mississippi Queen’. In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ made it to #4. Zeppelin continued to appear in the Top 40 into the early years of the 70s; ‘Immigrant Song’/’Hey Hey, What Can I Do’ hit #16 in 1970, ‘Black Dog’ reached #15 in ’71, and ‘Trampled Under Foot’ crept in at #38 in 1975.

2c3f8ff9430048d558aa11a9e3b15c5b

While Black Sabbath never achieved Top 40 status with any of their singles, they were there in spirit. Bloodrock’s ‘D.O.A.’ hit #36; a truly unsettling song (at it’s core, it’s a re-write of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’), ‘D.O.A’.’ was banned from many radio stations due to it’s graphically gory lyrics and dark musicality… which only helped boost its popularity. Alice Cooper hit #7 with ‘School’s Out’, another song that radio stations banned. With its subversive lyric, including a line about blowing up a school, it’s doubtful that this song would even be recorded today. The Edgar Winter Group’s monster instrumental ‘Frankenstein’ topped the charts (that’s #1, kids) in 1972. Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 masterpiece ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ (#12) may not qualify as ‘heavy’, but its epic middle section and morbid lyrics certainly do; the song caused a minor uproar when it was (correctly?) labeled a ‘pro-suicide anthem’. This was seriously heavy stuff, kids, and it was also considered pop music.

Alice-Cooper-Schools-Out-389876

Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ was only ever released as a single in the ‘double-A-side’ format, with the live version from ‘Made in Japan’ on the A-side and the studio version from the previous year’s ‘Machine Head’ on the B. Released in May of 1973, it climbed to #4; radio stations played both sides. Also in ’73, Rick Derringer’s kick-ass ‘Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo’ placed at #23, and Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’ reached #5; Sweet would hit again in 1975 with ‘Fox on the Run’ (#5) and ‘Action’ (#20). Alice came back in ’73 with three Top 40 placings from the ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ album: ‘Elected’ (#26), ‘Hello, Hurray’ (#35) and ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ (#25), before a bizarre run of four consecutive Top 40 ballads. Not bizarre because the ballads were bad; bizarre because … he was Alice Cooper. And these were ballads.

aerosmith-walk-this-way-cbs-2

Aerosmith were a dominant presence in the Top 40 for a few years, but didn’t exactly play fair… ‘Dream On’ originally peaked at #59 in 1973, but after the success of the ‘Sweet Emotion’ single (#36), Columbia re-released ‘Dream On’ again in 1976, and the song hit #6. ‘Walk This Way’ has a similar history: when originally released in 1975, the single didn’t even chart. In 1976, it was re-released in between the ‘Last Child’ (#21) and ‘Back in the Saddle’ (#38) singles, and this time ‘Walk This Way’ would hit #10. Aerosmith’s last visit to the Top 40 in the 70’s would be with their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ (#23) in 1978, from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. Aerosmith would re-appear as chart darlings a decade later, but as a drastically different kind of band (sob).

Kiss-Rock-and-Roll-All-Nite

The Hottest Band in the Land paid frequent visits to the Top 40. Kiss hit #12 in 1975 with the ‘Alive!’ version of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, with ‘Shout it Out Loud’ (#31) in ’76, and with ‘Calling Dr. Love’ (#16) and ‘Christine Sixteen’ (#25) in 1977. Two other Kiss singles charted just as high or higher; one was a ballad produced by Bob Ezrin (it worked for Alice). Neither single rocked, so they will not be acknowledged here. For about two years, Foghat were huge; ‘Slow Ride’ (#20), ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ (#34), and the live version of ‘I Just Want To Make Love to You’ (#33) were all over the radio. Heart showed up big with ‘Crazy on You’ (#35) and ‘Magic Man’ (#9) in ’76, and the absolutely awesome ‘Barracuda’ (#11), another solid candidate for the heaviest Top 20 song evah, a year later. Just goes to show: you can’t judge a 45 by its picture sleeve.

heart-barracuda-portrait-6

I’ll round out our research here with a few more notable one-offs: The manic flute freak-out of ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus reached #9 in 1973, BTO’s ‘Let it Ride’ got to #12 in, and ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ reached #20 in 1975. In 1976, Thin Lizzy broke big with ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ (#12), and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ topped out at #9. In 1977, Ted Nugent returned to the Top 40 (The Amboy Dukes’ ‘Journey to the Center of Your Mind’ hit #16 in 1968) with ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ (#30), and Ram Jam’s recording of the blues tune ‘Black Betty’ caused the NAACP to call for a national boycott. ‘Black Betty’ hit #17, which seems to indicate that the boycott failed…

thin-lizzy-the-boys-are-back-in-town-vertigo-15

It sounds improbable today, but in the 1970s, the place to go to for hard rock and heavy metal was Top 40 radio. In 1978, the Top 40 format began migrating to the FM dial, where singles mingled with album cuts, diluting the power of the ‘Hit Single’. As touring became big business, the hard and heavy bands began working the road the way they had previously worked radio. It was the end of the era when the Top 40 ruled the AM airwaves.

…Until today. The Top 40 format rules the airwaves once again, although these days it seems as though there are only 5 or 6 songs ever aired on the radio, played over and over and over. Today, there is ZERO rock music on Top 40 radio. Kids are finding their rock and metal music on the internet, acquiring it for free, and deleting it when they tire of it. To a child of the 70s sitting on his bed, staring at his battery-powered radio, waiting for the DJ to play ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ (Kansas, #11/’77) again, the music culture of today would seem like pure science fiction.

(Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything; everything that appears here is based on my (subjective) opinion of what constitutes hard rock and heavy metal during this era. Besides the omissions specifically mentioned in the article, some Top 40 singles by Jethro Tull, Queen and Nazareth were left out because imho, they just didn’t ROCK to a sufficient degree.)

 

17 Minutes of Fame

Erik Brann was born in 1950. He began taking violin lessons at an early age; at age 4 he was declared a child prodigy, and was accepted into the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s prodigy program. By his early teens, had begun toying with other stringed instruments. At 15, after his family had relocated to California, Brann was playing in amateur rock bands like ‘The Mods’, then ‘The Phogg’, rehearsing in a friend’s garage, across the street from his home in Reseda. Brann and his buddies in ‘The Phogg’ played at school dances and other small local gigs, but had to be driven to and from by their bass player, a college freshmen 4 years older than the other members of the band and the only member old enough to drive.

Brann heard that a band from the area was in need of a guitarist. This group had released an album which had reached No. 78 on the charts, and had toured with the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Brann was determined to get the job. One day he told his friends he was headed to The Whiskey on the Sunset Strip where this band was playing to try to get in and convince the group to hire him. His friends told him he probably wouldn’t even get into the club, never mind land the gig. Not only did Brann get into the club, but he convinced the band to give him a shot. Brann auditioned and got the gig. He was just 16 years old.
514_IRONBUT9
Brann’s new band began recording their second album for Atco, a division of Atlantic Records, in May of 1968. Side One was recorded in Hollywood, California; Side Two in Hempstead, New York. One of Brann’s own compositions was accepted and recorded, appearing on Side One. But it was Side Two’s lone track, clocking at 17 minutes and 5 seconds, that would have the most impact.

Because of that epic track’s lyrical theme: the story of Adam and Eve and man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, Brann attempted to emulate animal noises with his guitar in the song’s long instrumental mid-section. Brann played a sunburst Moserite Mark 4 through a Moserite Fuzz-Rite pedal and three Vox Super Beatle amps, and recorded various squawks, shrieks, and howls that would have no doubt horrified his instructors back in Boston.

By the time the record is completed, Brann had turned 17. The band’s management were unsure about publicizing Brann’s age, perhaps fearing it will hurt the band’s credibility, but eventually decided to at allow its mention in the album’s liner notes:

“…SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD ERIK BRANN, A NATIVE OF BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, IS THE YOUNGEST AND ANOTHER “NOMAD” IN THE GROUP. ONE OF THE MOST TALENTED YOUNG LEAD GUITARISTS IN THE COUNTRY, HIS MUSICAL TRAINING BEGAN BEFORE SCHOOL AND BY THE TIME HE WAS SEVEN YEARS OF AGE, HE WAS A CONCERT VIOLINIST. ALTHOUGH MUSIC HAS ALWAYS BEEN HIS ONE GREAT LOVE, ERIK STUDIED DRAMA AND BEFORE JOINING…”

Erik Brann’s recording debut was released on June 14, 1968, followed in July by the album’s first single: a severely truncated version of the 17-minute album’s title track. Both album and single were smash hits. The single, edited to 2:53, excised the extended instrumental sections, including Brann’s adventurous guitar solo; it peaked at No. 30 in the Billboard Hot 100. But it was the original, un-edited 17-minutes-plus version that was the true ‘hit’, as many DJs chose to air the sprawling, unedited album version…
2221be2b-901d-4ee2-aa06-d416cc06a7ac_l
Iron Butterfly’s ‘In A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ is quite simply one of rock music’s greatest songs. It’s an instant acid flashback to all the excess and indulgence of the psychedelic 60s, but it also marks an important point in musical history: the moment where psychedelic rock mutates toward of the beginnings of heavy metal. It’s sinister tone and minor key drone have been used countless times in movies and TV to invoke the dark side of the 1960s and the Vietnam era. It’s all creepy keyboards, fuzzy guitars, melodramatic vocals, and a drum solo, slowly unfolding over 17 minutes like a bad trip, with more than a hint of menace and a seriously trippy title. Right on, man.

‘In A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ the album would debut at No. 117, but on the strength of the title track, the album would quickly sell 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard album charts, swiftly becoming Atlantic Records’ biggest selling album ever, until it was displaced by Led Zeppelin IV years later. It was the first album ever to be certified Platinum. In April of 1971, the record finally dropped out of the charts after an astounding 140 weeks. Eventually the record would sell over 30 million copies worldwide.

A-424207-1176454934_jpeg

Within a few short months, 17-year old Erik Brann was a rock star. He bought a candy apple red Jaguar XKE; he bought Neil Diamond’s house in Tarzana. But Brann wouldn’t last the balance of the year as a member of Iron Butterfly; a number of illnesses, including a congenital heart defect, prevented him from touring for extended periods. Brann would later quip, “My first vacation I bought a car, a Jaguar, and parked it outside the hospital where I spent two weeks for ulcers and gastroenteritis.” Brann’s rock star dream would be over by the time he turned 18 years old. Erik Brann, aged 52, died of cardiac arrest in 2003, while the landmark song he helped to create has earned a place of permanence in rock history, where it will live on forever.

*Most people know this, I think; but in case you missed it:

In A Gadda Da Vida = In the Garden of Eden

Martin Birch: Engineering History

I’ve got books on my shelves about Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, Rush, and Judas Priest. About The Ramones, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cheap Trick. Books about classic albums like Led Zeppelin IV, ‘Master of Reality’, and ‘Deep Purple In Rock’. I have bios written by Gillan, Iommi and Lemmy. One each by Steven Tyler and by Joe Perry. By all 4 members of KISS. The rock books in my personal library range from trashy tell-alls to insightful and historically accurate journalism. The career arcs of my heroes and critical analysis of their works is something I study with great interest. The one book I don’t have, and the book I am most anxious to read, is one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been written yet.

Martin Birch: Write your bloody book already.

The name ‘Martin Birch’ appears on several of the most important hard rock/heavy metal albums of all time. At the end of this post, I’ve included a list of just some of Birch’s production credits. This gentleman has produced/engineered/mixed the soundtracks to our youths He has worked with many of our musical heroes for extensive periods of time; he could probably fill a book with his experiences with Deep Purple alone (seven studio albums), and make his work with Iron Maiden (eight) his Volume II… And still not even scratch the surface of his experience.

martin-birch-producer-sound-enginer

You know he’s got stories to tell. Working with Ritchie Blackmore in the studio on a whopping 10 records… Witnessing the sad disintegration of legends like Bill Ward, Tommy Bolin, and Michael Schenker… And being present at the creation of new legends like Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie Dio. Dude was hand-picked to rebuild the stature of a born again Black Sabbath, and of a floundering Blue Oyster Cult. This guy was the first to record the harmonizing guitars of Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell and Ted Turner, and the first to capture the harmonizing voices of Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale. Birch was behind the board in Munich as Ritchie Blackmore’s solo single became a solo album, and helmed the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio outside Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan in August of 1972… not just witnessing history being made, but recording it… And not merely recording history, but taking part in it; shaping it.

Birch was often credited as producer/engineer as well as for mixing, meaning he was solely responsible for the overall sound of his projects. This often meant getting workable performances from drug addicts, volatile personalities, and in some cases, people with very little talent. In other cases, it meant recording under extremely difficult circumstances, including sessions held in a barn in Steve Harris’ backyard (No Prayer for the Dying’), and in the freezing cold hallways of empty hotel in Switzerland (‘Machine Head’). Ya, this guy’s got stories.

machine-head-deep-purple

And nicknames! Birch appears in album/single credits with various band-bestowed nicknames sandwiched between his first and last names, such as Black Night, Sir Larry, Basher, Big Ears, Court Jester, Doc, The Farmer, The Wasp, Headmaster, Jah, Live Animal, Masa, Mummy’s Curse, Plan B, Pool Bully, The Bishop, The Juggler, The Ninja, and my two favorites: Martin ‘Phantom of the Jolly Cricketers’ Birch, as he’s credited on the Iron Maiden Single ‘Run to the Hills’ (Live)/’Phantom of the Opera’ (Live), and Martin ‘Disappearing Armchair’ Birch, as credited on Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ lp. Note: This is not a complete list. A guy with this many nicknames has some great life experiences to share.

But what is it about this man that put him in the same room with these musicians time and again? What does he bring to the table that sets him apart from his peers? I would love to read his own take on why he was the go-to guy for so many iconic bands. Clearly the man has an excellent set of ears, but also must possess an extraordinary talent for inspiring and motivating artistic people. Deep Purple MkII dedicated a song to him on ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ (‘Hard Lovin’ Man’) and called him ‘a catalyst’ in the liner notes; high praise coming from one of the more creative and progressive heavy bands of the era. There is a compelling, historically significant story here: how one man helped mold and shape an entire genre for more than 2 decades.

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell - Frontal1

Is there a ‘Martin Birch Sound’? Birch’s productions do all share a similar overall ‘presence’; it’s all about sonic space, and balance within that space; much of it happens in the mix, and (as you’re noticing as you read this), it’s very difficult to describe. To my own ears, Birch creates a space where every instrument can clearly be heard perfectly, and where every element has exactly the ‘right’ shape and presence in the mix, and works together to create an almost solid, 3-dimensional sound. I would suggest Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’, Iron Maiden’s ‘Piece of Mind’, and Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ as prime examples of what a Martin Birch production/mix sounds like. Three very different bands with three vastly different sounds; one consistent sonic presentation.

After Whitesnake’s ‘Slide it In’ in 1984, Birch was commandeered to work exclusively for Iron Maiden. Some have called him Iron Maiden’s ‘Fifth Member’. Wouldn’t Eddie be the fifth? That would make Birch the sixth member, unless you acknowledge Janick Gers, which I don’t… But I digress. Martin Birch retired permanently in 1992, after his umpteenth album with Maiden, ‘Fear of the Dark’. Drastic changes in recording technology led to subtle changes in Martin Birch’s signature presentation, evident in Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son…’ and ‘Somewhere in Time’ albums, and perhaps Birch knew that his era was drawing to a close. He was a mere 42 years old when he walked away from the business; today, he’s a bit past his mid-60’s… Mr. Birch, we suggest you add ‘The Author’ to your impressive collection of nicknames.

martinbirchsteveharris

Deep Purple: Deep Purple In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Made in Japan, Who Do we Think we Are?, Burn, Stormbringer, Made in Europe, Come Taste the Band, Last Concert in Japan

Black Sabbath: Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules

Rainbow: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rising, On Stage, Long Live Rock and Roll

Whitesnake: Lovehunter, Ready an’ Willing, Live in the Heart of the City, Come an’ Get it, Saints an’ Sinners, Slide it In

Blue Oyster Cult: Cultosaurus Erectus, Fire of Unknown Origin

Michael Schenker Group: Assault Attack

Iron Maiden: Killers, The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, etc etc etc.

Wishbone Ash: Wishbone Ash, Pilgrimage, Argus